First dibs

May 31, 1991|By Sun Herald, Gulfport, Miss.

SURPLUS federal property was bought and paid for by U.S. taxpayers, and they should get the full benefit of the property. However, an existing foreign policy program gives first dibs on the best surplus equipment to foreign countries, while cities and states at home go begging.

States shop regularly for federal castoffs, frequently purchasing road equipment and other big-ticket items for less than 10 cents on the dollar. Road graders, fire trucks, barges, cranes -- there is a tremendous list of things that cities, counties and states need but cannot afford to buy new.

Since 1986, the very best of the highly prized material no longer needed by the Defense Department has been offered first to selected foreign countries under a congressionally established Humanitarian Assistance Program: 39 other countries get first refusal; U.S. cities and states must get in line.

To add insult to the taxpayers who paid millions of dollars for this stuff in the first place, the foreign countries don't have to pay for the equipment, for shipping or for needed repairs. U.S. cities and states do. Example: A Louisiana parish needed some road scrapers, and found four, marked "surplus federal property," at a Naval Construction Battalion Center in neighboring Mississippi. But the machines were sent to Uruguay, at U.S. taxpayers' expense. Sabine Parish finally found two road scrapers at a U.S. military base in Germany. In addition to the purchase price, the shipping cost charged to the parish to bring them back to the states was $45,000.

Legislation has now been introduced in the House of Representatives that would give states first access to the surplus property. The sponsor of the bill is Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia.

The Defense Department defends the program as a relatively inexpensive means of furthering U.S. foreign aid policy. We say the program puts quite a chunk of foreign aid largess in the hands of the Defense Department. And it puts much-needed equipment out of reach of the people who originally paid for it.

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